Saturday, July 15, 2006

On the question of the unwinnable wars in general and the Iraq war in specific

Aqlamonline No. 18, July/August 2006

Taher Laswad A Tunisian researcher living in North America

First let’s settle down on one simple forgotten fact: Oh, yes, there are unwinnable wars! Another fact? For the US administration the war in Iraq is an unwinnable war.
There were always unwinnable wars. In fact the accomplishment of military victory was not and will never be a military accomplishment. Victory is never realized solely by the act of war. It is a political accomplishment. Hitler did not loose for inadequate military planning, shortage of soldiers, nor weak military infrastructure. He lost politically: the German people “decided” that it can no longer defend the regime. Their defense, if there was ever any, was to negotiate their own survival and not the Nazis’. Once they knew that they would not be exterminated nor put in concentration camps they gave up Hitler and his last lieutenants. That was a defeat, a political defeat. Hitler’s war was not winnable. As for his adversaries, their war was winnable only because it was so politically.
Thus there are two elements to keep in mind: first, if you are in the wrong side, and in many cases there is indeed a wrong one, you cannot win a war, which means that you will loose it. Second, even if you were to be in the good side, it has to be a politically good side.
Now, where does the Bush administration stands in the question of the winnability of the Iraq war? That is: Is there a winnable side and if there is any how is it politically a winnable side? These are the major questions of a serious military debate about Iraq even though they are not strictly military questions.
This seems, however, to be the major untold assessment that neither the politicians of both sides in Washington[i] nor the mainstream media or even the mainstream think tanks are willing to admit.[ii] Worse: this seems to be also the case with the military commanders, those in charge and those who are not including the retired generals who are in contracted battles as “military experts” in the major news networks.
As for the mainstream media it is enough to read a good example of distortion: David Brooks’ article (Herald Tribune, June 19 2006), in which he details seven “key realities” to prove the opinion of “some” of the members of his fictional “military council” who “believe the odds of eventual success are higher than 50 percent”, but fails to even mention the “key realities” upon which the rest of his “military council” decided the percentage is “well under” the 50 percent. Another thing, Brooks’ fictional “military council” does not include any member who is ready “to admit defeat and withdraw”. Obviously it is not only a circus; mainstream media include some serious commentators (Frank Rich’s article in the same issue of the Herald Tribune).

The political meaning of the Iraq war
The war in Iraq is a war of occupiers and occupied. This is its political definition. The most serious of the counterarguments to such definition, and there are not many, is the Sunnization of the resistance.
In fact the major current military factions are self-proclaimed Sunni groups, which is not hard to know since most of them carry on a religious discourse and are known to be Islamist however the word “Islamist” could be understood. Because all Iraq is under the domination of the US troops, the counterargument goes, the absence of a military action in the Kurdish north and Shiite south is the indication of the absence of an “Iraqi national problem”, and therefore, an absence of the contradiction between occupiers and occupied. Clearly the brief occurrence of a Shiite military action, through the rebellion of the Mahdi’s Army, is a testimony that it is not precise to assume a total absence of military resistance in the Shiite south. Still the fact is that the resistance is principally lead by Arab Sunnis in space and time. The Mahdi’s Army has been probably engaged in internal civil conflict as much as it has contributed in the overall military action against the US troops.
The al-Qaida’s factor is a key element justifying the assessment that believes in the dominance of the internal conflict rather than a conflict against an external force. Since the principal doctrine in al-Qaida’s strategy in Iraq is to wage a war against an “alliance of infidels and Shiites”, the “Sunni-Shiite contradiction” is not really fiction. The daily explosions in Shiite markets and mosques are without doubt the concretization of such a strategy. On the other hand the abductions and the assassination of Sunni civilians conducted officially and unofficially by the militias of Badr are the indication that civil war is underway, or at least such a war is in the process of formation. Thus the counterargument goes further by supplanting the “occupier-occupied contradiction” by a “historic”, as Don Rumsfield once described it, “Shiite-Sunnite” conflict.
Still the war in Iraq is essentially a contradiction between occupiers and occupied. Except for a minority like al-Qaida, which strategy explicitly views the Shiites (al-Rafidha as they call them) as a principal enemy for merely sectarian reasons, the mainstream of military movements are nationalists even though they are Sunni in their majority. The seemingly paradox of a national agenda defended by mainly a sectarian group is not unrealistic or impossible. A highly sectarian society like current Iraq implies highly divided agendas. The belief in a united national state is among the major dividing issues.
For historic and political reasons a majority of Kurds still think that they do not need to be part of a united national state and they are ready to settle only for a structure that allows them a high degree of self-governance. Simultaneously the “Kurdish independence” in their sense is viewed mainly through the presence of a “powerful ally” such as the US military. In other words the Kurds not only advocate a divided Iraq but also an occupied Iraq. The deconstruction of the national state in that sense is closely related to a military occupation. Does such a sectarian political choice mean the absence of the country of Iraq? Does it mean that the rest of non-Kurdish Iraqis are not supposed to believe in an Iraqi national state whatever its frontiers are? Obviously not. It is also important to notice that the Islamist sides within the Kurdish community even though they are a minority they are generally reluctant to accept or even hostile to the US military presence.
What has to be clear is that the Shiites’ agenda(s) is (are) different in essence than the Kurdish one. A major factor affecting their political attitudes is that they are Arabs just like the majority of the Iraqi Sunnis. Even though their Shiism puts them in odds with the Sunnis the major reason for conflict is not sectarian but rather political. The alliance of many Shiites with Iran could undermine their allegiance to the pre-US war structure of a centralized state. But it will never undermine their commitment to a national state. It is crucial to remember that there is in fact an Arab-Iranian conflict that has existed historically even through the political changes including the seemingly decrease of the nationalist aspiration in Iran after the Islamic Revolution. A major indication of the continuous Arab-Iranian conflict in the region is the highly contested Iranian power in the region of al-Ahwaz even though most of the Arabs there are Shiites. Moreover the political alliance with Iran does not mean necessarily a decrease in the allegiance towards a national Iraqi state. For instance the Sadriyyin are historically highly sensitive of any Iranian intrusion within Iraq and their preference of Arab Imams is well known even though they could be considered allies of Iran. Such position explains in fact their special relations with the rest of the Arabs that is the Iraqi Sunnis. In fact their major issue of conflict within the Shiite community with political forces such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution (SCIR) and the Badr Militias is their deeper allegiance towards the national Iraqi state and their willingness to be less dependent on the Iranians.
It is true that there is a difference between the Shiite allegiance towards the national state and their attitude towards the US military presence. But it is also clear that as much as the Shiite forces prove to be willing to preserve a national state their hostility towards the US military presence rises. The various pro-national positions of the Sadriyyin against the sectarian positions of the Iraqi “Hizbollah” or the SCIR show such a distinctive pattern. As the Iranian-US tensions intensify even the very dependence to Iran of some Shiite groups would be a major factor of future clashes with the US presence. The absence of a Shiite military action against the US army does not mean the absence of a Shiite hostility. There is a decision by the potential Shiite military forces to halt any military action. This is, however, a tactical decision that it is not meant to remain indefinitely. For all these reasons the current Sunni domination of military resistance does not mean that such resistance is not an action of national liberation.

Post-Scriptum: On politicizing the war debate
I don’t mean by that the kitchist and widely shared meaning in the US media by which “politicizing the war debate” means using the war in Iraq to manipulate the domestic agenda. I mean, however, something else that is rarely addressed, even though it is decisive. Politicizing the war debate is shutting off any possible rejection by military experts of an unwinnable war through the introduction of a “political expertise” that pretends to understand better than any military the political meaning of war. Such politicization ends up to the position of rejecting any opposition to the official political position by denying the military any ability to understand the political issues of armed conflicts.
Following the Bush administration this pattern occurred several times. The latest of which took probably the most unusual form. According to various reports an official meeting that President Bush held in Camp David just after the death of Zarqawi-to discuss with the military commanders the future of the war-to which he invited some familiar names among the same “civilian” neoconservative crowd that pushed for the Iraq war such as Frederick Kagan and Robert Kaplan. Not only such “civilian experts” would not be rejected from the club of possible advisers that the White House would listen to but they are also invited to give lectures to the military leadership. The failure or refusal by the administration to understand the political meaning of the war in Iraq is well manifested by a politicization of the war debate that negates the field officers to bring in the facts of the ground.
[i] People like the D-congressman John Murtha who in 2004 publicly described the war in Iraq as “unwinnable” has been rejected since by most politicians in Washington including by his fellow Democrats. Besides Murtha described the war as “unwinnable” only if “the direction is changed” through undetermined changes by the Pentagon. See:
[ii] Among the few analysis that expressed clearly a prospect of an unwinnable war in Iraq is an article by the RAND fellow James Dobbins (Foreign Affairs January/February 2005). Nevertheless the insurgency could be defeated according to Dobbins by “moderate Iraqis [who] can get… support from elsewhere” than the US military. See:



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